Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of one of Africa’s greatest and visionary leaders. General Murtala Mohammed, the man who ascended to power after July 30th, 1975 military coup, spent only six months in office. But his presence would be felt forever. Murtala’s predecessor, General Yakubu Gowon, was overthrown while attending the summit of the Organisation of African Unity in Ethiopia.
General Mohammed was assassinated on February 13th 1976, a month after his historic speech at the OAU summit. The 37-year-old military leader sounded the bell, telling his colleagues it was about time they spoke and acted with defiance. It was a speech that defined Mohammed’s character – a speech some people believed had written his death warrant. Clearly, General Mohammed would not be the only African leader to be assassinated moments after challenging the western powers at the OAU. Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso was also gunned down three months after he insisted at the OAU summit in 1987 that Africa must not pay the debts that were imposed on her.
An extract of General Mohammed’s OAU speech is worth reading, for it defined the assassinated leader’s vision about Africa and Africans.
“Mr. Chairman, when I contemplate the evils of apartheid, my heart bleeds and I am sure the heart of every true blooded African bleeds. . . Rather than join hands with the forces fighting for self-determination and against racism and apartheid, the United States policy makers clearly decided that it was in the best interests of their country to maintain white supremacy and minority regimes in Africa…
“Africa has come of age. It is no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar. For too long have we been kicked around: for too long have we been treated like adolescents who cannot discern their interests and act accordingly. For too long has it been presumed that the African needs outside ‘experts’ to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies. The time has come when we should make it clear that we can decide for ourselves; that we know our own interests and how to protect those interests; that we are capable of resolving African problems without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers which, more often than not, have no relevance for us, nor for the problem at hand.”
Like Thomas Sankara, Murtala didn’t believe in formalities and adopted low profile life during his 200 days in office. He lived in the same house he had occupied as Director of Army Signal Corps. He drove to work every morning without convoy, sirens or outsiders; he rode alone with his driver from Lagos to Kano .
General Mohammed would be remembered for being a leader who was not interested in lining up his pockets. He had N7.22 (less than 2 dollars at the time) in his bank account when he died. He busied himself with creating wealth for Nigeria. Mohammed was unlike other military leaders who used their power on unarmed civilians. He has never detained a single person during his presidency. He believed in the rule of law which was why he sued African Spark magazine that accused him of corruptly enriching himself before he became the head of state. He sought redress in Igbosere magistrate court. Murtala was assassinated along with his Aide-de-camp Lieutnant Akintunde Akinsehinwa before the court’s March 17th adjourned date.
An abortive coup led by Lt. Col. Buka Suka Dimka cut short Murtala’s mission. His Chief of Staff, Olusegun Obasanjo, took over and completed Murtala’s orderly transfer of power to Shehu Shagari on October 1, 1979.
General Mohammed would also be remembered for creating seven other states in Nigeria. As a former commander of the 2nd Brigade, Mohammed’s efforts prevented the cessation of Biafra from Nigeria.
Murtala’s goal was to pave way for a continental freedom. General Murtala, whose policies won him broad popular support, introduced “Fellow Nigerians” and “with immediate effect” in Nigeria.
At a Murtala Memorial lecture, President Muhammadu Buhari urged Nigerians to emulate the late leader’s virtues, determination to do better and to make Nigeria better.
“His life, short though it proved to be, was marked by an extraordinary passion, energy and determination to do better, and to make Nigeria better,” Buhari said.